On February 23, the Children’s Rights Alliance launched the Report Card 2021. The Report Card is an annual publication that aims to assess the government’s performance against its own commitments. Report Card 2021 is the first analysis of last year’s Programme for Government. The government’s performance is graded by an independent panel of experts from different areas.
The government’s commitment to reform the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) system was graded C. This grade reads as “a satisfactory attempt, but children still left wanting”. This is due to ongoing work including consultations on a Workforce Development Plan and a new funding model. These were positive developments but reports on both should be published in 2021 in order to progress reform. The Childminding Action Plan is also due for publication in 2021. Many areas of concern were highlighted though. First, how the Workforce Development Plan considers childminders and what level of qualification they should be required to have. Second, although poor pay and working conditions are key drivers of the high staff turnover, they are outside of the scope of the Plan. Third, special attention needs to be given to systemic inequalities – the participation rate of children from low-income families in formal childcare was less than a quarter of that of their high-income peers. In addition, the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) is only available for pre-school children who are aged over two years and eight months. This means that children with disabilities who attend formal childcare settings at a younger age may not receive sufficient support to enable them to develop in line with their peers. Fourth, affordability continues to be an issue, as childcare costs rose for the third consecutive year. Despite the expansion of the hours of entitlement under the National Childcare Scheme (NCS), the budget allocation for 2021 for ECEC was not increased, which means that current payments under both the NCS and ECCE scheme remain unchanged.
The authors recommend that the final funding model report should explore the potential for a publicly funded model which would see the State establish ECEC as a public service, akin to primary education. Under this model, the State could contract existing private and community services to become part of an infrastructure that allows for central strategic management and local supports. Covid-19 has rapidly accelerated reform of the system, with the State paying the wages of workers directly through wage subsidy schemes. This government intervention could be seen as the first step towards a publicly funded system.
The government’s commitment to establishing a single agency, Childcare Ireland, was graded D. This grade reads as “barely acceptable performance, little or no positive impact on children”. While preliminary work has begun for the establishment of the body, progress to date has been slow. Furthermore, it is not clear what elements of reform will be included in the remit of the body and if it will incorporate the necessary inspection process.
Overall, for the work undertaken in the last six months of 2020, the Government received a C- grade. According to the report, many of the positive developments that happened during this time were a continuity of work that had been in train under the previous Government, but which took on a new level of urgency in the context of the global pandemic.
The Report Card is a valuable monitoring instrument, that allows for the identification of the most pressing issues that children face in the country. This effort is even more relevant during the pandemic, which has deeply affected the lives of children in various ways. Early Childhood Ireland’s advocacy work aims to make sure that the many points raised are turned into political action.